“I think you grew last night.”
I don’t know what made me say it. Hundreds of weekday mornings had passed without my saying anything at all. If you’re a parent who routinely gets your children up and out for school, you’ll recognize the sameness, how all the mornings that have come before all but bleed together into a mass of unpleasantness, of yelling to get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, stop dawdling and find your own shoes for a change, a miserably breathless swell of activity entirely contained in a witching hour between 7 and 8am, the worst hour of every weekday, day after day.
But right now, at 7am, before the nagging and rushing starts, I scoop my hands underneath my five-year-old son, still light enough to lift from his bed and suspend without a lot of effort, and I stretch out his body like he’s a cat at a cat show, and I say this to him, and he is more than half asleep, but I say it again, feeling his arms and legs straining as he gives a big stretch. I get him to give me his breakfast order and set him down and have already forgotten this moment as I head to the kitchen. A few minutes later I’m about to carry his breakfast out to the dining room table and yell for him to get out of bed when I realize that he has, uncharacteristically, already gotten out of bed. He has pushed back one of the swinging doors to the kitchen so he can stand with his back against the wall and measure himself against the last greasy pencil-mark we made on the wall, to see how much he grew.
When I looked at him against that wall, passing his palm over the top of his head and then holding his finger to mark the spot so he could check his height, it dawned on me for the first time since he was born how, early on at least, our children give so much weight to what we tell them. That he believed that I thought he grew in the night broke my heart. Not because I felt bad for lying to him. I mean, I’m sure our children grow incrementally overnight every night, but it’s not like I could really see a difference, like that morning Emily Elizabeth is astonished when Clifford the Small Red Puppy wakes up five times bigger than he was the night before.
And of course my son didn’t know I really couldn’t see a difference. What was heartbreaking about that moment was realizing that my comment that he grew — whether he took it as gospel or simply as a fragment of positive reinforcement– was the kind of thing I should have been saying to him and his sisters on all these past mornings. What kind of difference would it have made in their lives if more of these positive remarks had come their way? Wouldn’t all of our days have been better if at least once, during that most unpleasant hour of the day, I had said something nice to all three of them? It couldn’t have hurt, I’m sure.
My five-year-old is now six quickly going on seven, and my daughters are 10 and 13. And I don’t doubt that on some level, all three will always want approval from me and their mother. But from what I can tell right now — and perhaps this had long ago been published in the New England Journal of the Obvious — the older my kids get, the less weight they seem give to what I tell them. The teen in particular. But I pledged that morning when my son so willfully went to the wall to measure himself that before another three hundred mornings went by, I’d try to use my power for good, even if that power is now already significantly diminished. What I take away from that moment above all, however, are these things.
1. If you’re a parent, even your most offhand remark can make a tremendous difference in the mind of a child. This point has already been made, but it’s still the most important one on this list.
2. That most unpleasant hour of every day is one of the only hours we have to spend together as a family. So no matter how much yelling continues to fill that hour, we’re also trying to make time for positive comments, too. “Good job getting ready today.” “That shirt looks good on you.” “I really like this drawing you made last night (when you were trying to show it to me but I was too busy to even let you get my attention).” So if you have an hour like this in your house, pepper it with something nice. Even if you’re not feeling it, see point number one.
3. Making the time to say at least one positive thing a day to your child is particularly important if you’re not there. If you travel frequently and are not routinely a part of that in-person meager quality time your wife is trying to squeak out with your kids while you’re gone, try not to miss complimenting your kids, even if they’re already asleep when you call. Find out from your wife if one of the kids brought home a test with a good mark, or just find out anything your child did that day that could potentially warrant a positive remark from you, and make sure your kids get the message. Even if your children end up being disappointed in the presents you bring home from your trip, at least they’ll know that you were thinking about them every day.